Mental Health

When “Okay” Is Not Okay

Sometimes "okay" means "not okay"

I suspect that many of us living with mental illness, or other chronic illness, for that matter, have a standard set of responses that we sometimes draw on when answering questions about how we are and what we do. “Not okay” just isn’t something most people want to hear.

For me, these standard responses may come out if there’s an expectation of judgment, but also if I know the person isn’t actually interested in the real answer, if I don’t like the person sufficiently for them to get a genuine answer, or if I just don’t have a short but still accurate answer for how I’m doing.

Here are some examples from my repertoire.

How are you?

  • “Great” = anywhere from good to great
  • “Good” = okay
  • “Okay” = not okay
  • “Alright” = not very good, but there’s no point getting into it now
  • “Um… ok, I guess” = really not okay, but I don’t have the words/energy to describe it

It’s been a long time since I’ve come out with the first two responses, but they were standard practice when I was well.

What have you been up to lately?

  • “not much” = I’m doing my usual thing, but I have no interest in telling you what that is
  • “Um……. not much” = a) I’ve literally done nothing, or b) I don’t remember

Work-related questions

I don’t have enough contact with people to run into this situation anymore, but after I quit my last full-time job in 2016 because of workplace bullying, this was something I struggled with. Mostly, I tried to keep the word count below five. “Where are you working right now?” “I’m not.” End of story. People seem to feel very entitled to ask about work. But, as I said, I don’t deal with that much now because I’m not around annoying people enough to have to put up with it. Plus now it takes me an extended period of time to even get five words out of my mouth, so that shuts things down rather well.

Smiling versus not-smiling

I sometimes try to smile to be polite. Psychomotor retardation doesn’t always leave that as an option, though. The slower I get, the less I’m physically able to move my face into expressions. Even if I wanted to smile, I couldn’t; it’s like my face just doesn’t move that way. And really, forced politeness is pretty low on the list of things that matter to me, so I can’t be bothered wasting energy on people I don’t care about.


I’m sure I have more examples, but nothing more is coming into my head. So, over to you — do you have any preferred go-to responses?

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56 thoughts on “When “Okay” Is Not Okay”

  1. I struggle with this. I don’t like to lie (and am a bad liar anyway), but often the truth is not what other people want to hear, or what I want to say, or I can’t think of the right words even if I wanted to say them. I usually just tell people I’m “OK” or “Fine” or leave it at that.

    Also, being long-term unemployed is socially awkward to admit to enough even without added mental health elements.

  2. I love this.

    I think we say Okay even when we aren’t because its so much easier than trying to explain to someone else exactly how we feel and what is going on in our mind. Especially when you know the other person doesn’t have a clue or understand what you are going through.

    I tend to reply with “im fine”

  3. I usually answer with just basic information–work and such–but then end it with ‘other than that, life is pretty much a disaster 🙂 or a chuckle ‘

    the happy face/chuckle makes them think I’m kidding but in reality I’m saying ‘nopes, not okay at all and life actually does feel like a total disaster’. The only one who gets my sarcastic sense of humor in these instances is T.

  4. I love this!! It’s important for people to know that just because someone says they’re okay doesn’t always mean they actually are. It’s also important to understand that those struggling, don’t have to talk about if they don’t want to. My best friend struggles with severe anxiety, I know her well enough to read her body language now, but I have no problem sitting in silence with her when she needs it. She’s admitted that sometimes that’s the best thing I can do for her, just to sit by her side and not speak. Thank you for sharing!

  5. As people who despise small talk, we focus on a specific, big-picture event. We thought about this a lot in summer because Spouse wanted to go for walks with us, and Spouse is outgoing and well-liked.

    So if it’s someone we haven’t seen/communicated with in a long time, we’ll say, “COVID has disrupted our mental health therapy, so we’re consumed with seeking resources.” If they give a fuck, that leads to a conversation. If they don’t, we have been honest and left them something to chew on if they have other contacts who may be struggling with similar challenges to us.

    If Older Child is coming home from college, we might say that we’re excited to see Older Child soon, and that leads often to non-threatening conversation about having kids in college.

  6. I dig the post. I gotta work on my responses to people 😅. I usually am way too honest and most people don’t even know how to answer me being so truthful when they ask how em I doing.

  7. My favorite response is the last one on your list, “okay, I guess”. Just recently I said that to my best friend. He called me on the carpet and asked, “no, how are you really doing”. His response caught me off guard. I am thankful though for him saying that for it let me know he really wanted to hear how I was feeling.

  8. My husband and one or two friends has decoded my canned responses, and at the time it was unnerving. Now it’s kind of nice being able to say what I mean without meaning what I say.

  9. Oh yeah. When I took Geodon for over six years, it removed my creativity. During that period, I ran into a high-school classmate who was glad to see me. She was a nice person. She asked what I’d been up to, and my response was, “Uh… nothing.” And I was thinking, why have I been up to nothing? No clue. And her feelings seemed to be hurt as if I was lying to her (which I wasn’t), and I felt bad.

    And nowadays with Sonya, she’ll ask how I’m doing and I’ll say, “I’m great!” But she’ll press the issue to make sure I’m not just talking a big talk, because she’s figured out that I tend to try to be optimistic about such things even when I’m miserable, and I often won’t tell her I’m struggling, either because I haven’t figured it out myself yet (go figure) or because I’m trying to fake it ’til I make it by pretending to be in a great mood.

    But if we’re talking about an acquaintance, I’m definitely going to use the deadpan “I’m great,” line and just run with it.

  10. “Same old” and “the usual” work for me, since they aren’t lies but aren’t fake cheerful either. Lots of times I give a positive reply though because I try to keep an optimistic mindset going. If I feel really bad I will say meh or bleh or blah or HORRIBLE! But usually only to my girls or a close friend 🎃

  11. I have lots of stock responses, and I use them to “sidestep.” This has come up before among people who know me closely, in that I seem more extroverted than introverted to many at first, but this is only because of the many “stock responses” I’ve developed. A lot of the time, it doesn’t matter whether I like or care about the person or who they are really, I just practice the stock response in order to minimize the amount of space the interaction is going to take place in my psyche. Most people are pretty cool with that, as long as (as someone else suggested) I keep it on the upbeat.

    Generally, it connotes: “I’ve got something going on, yes, you don’t need to know what it is right now, but it will all come out into the open in good time, and then you’ll be glad you spelled my name right.” Or something in that area — just so long as I somehow convey that I’m at least as important as the other person is in the interaction, it does a good deal for me at those moments.

  12. My go-to is “Fine and you?” ‘cleverly’ deflecting the nosy question back to them. If they press the matter, I might just say “Not that great actually, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear about my troubles.” Usually makes the most inquisitive back off.

  13. After experiencing work-place bullying, I’m not surprised you’d struggle with honest answers to the ‘how are you’ question or really about opening up and sharing anything not work-related.

    My repertoire is typically just ‘fine thanks, how’re you?’ I’ve found that 99% of people I’ve known offline have never really cared about the answer. Some online don’t. The times I’ve dared to share, when I’ve been really struggling, I’ve had some pretty shitty responses that have made me prefer to suffer in silence and keep my mouth shut (or my fingers off the keyboard!) What I think I find difficult is that I tend to think from my perspective, and maybe I do expect too much from others. If I ask how someone is, I care and want to listen if they wish to talk to me, without judgement or pushiness. Thankfully my own experiences of ever saying I’m not okay haven’t turned me into a total asshole. I’d just rather be there for others than risk the let down, judgement or non-response when sharing my own feelings. That didn’t mean to sound as ‘woe-is-me’ as it came out. It’s just an honest account of what I’ve experienced.

    The online realm, for the most part, has been rather different, but of course you’ll still get those that judge or don’t really care for you telling them that things are anything but gloriously rosy. I actually had one blogger who told me off for never opening up or telling her how I was when she asked me, and she felt bad that she always talked about herself. I told her things weren’t great, thank you for caring, and told her a few of the negative things I was going through? She replied a few sentences along the lines of : “I can’t hear this, I just can’t deal with it. I need positivity, you know? There’s so much to be grateful for, and at least you don’t have cancer”. I shit you not.

    As for smiling, I’m guilty of false politeness a lot. I feel sometimes that makes me a bad person or not genuine. It’s more like a natural thing though because I don’t attempt to do it, it just happens and I hate thinking I’d ever offend someone willingly (not too bothered if they’re an asshole and I offend them intentionally 😉). You make a good point with your inability to physically always smile, because so much in our communications comes from non-verbal cues. Do you ever find that people ask you more how you are when you’re not smiling, or that they’re more disinterested?

    Sorry for the huge ramble. Might be useful if you need something to send you off to sleep! xx

    1. That whole “at least you don’t have cancer”, there are starving children in Africa, etc., etc. nonsense drives me bonkers. And sure, being a starving child with cancer in Africa with a warthog eating your butt wouldn’t be pleasant, but that shouldn’t mean other people can’t have a slice of the shitty life pie.

  14. Great entry. When I was in rehab, there was a woman and I who were always the first up in the morning and after a few days we agreed to stop saying “How are you?” as our first greeting. Instead we would say “I see you” because we agreed that’s all people meant when they asked it. Nobody really cares about the answer, they just have to acknowledge you to be polite.

  15. Also, any time anyone asks me what’s wrong, my answer is always, “I’m tired”. It always works. No more questions asked. It’s always accepted because we’re all tired, aren’t we? And it’s not even really a lie. I’m tired of dealing with everything. I’m emotionally tired. And, sometimes, I’m actually physically tired on top of it!

  16. When people ask me questions, I always resort to telling what I’m doing now without going into details about the challenges I am facing. I sometimes actually feels mentally weak though doing what I am doing but I just keep the conversation short by talking about happenings instead of how I feel and think. People thought they are showing me concerns and supporting me. In fact, I don’t feel anything about their questions. These questions aren’t helpful in any way. I feel more rested when I am around people who have the similar kind of struggles. Thanks for sharing this openly, Ashleyleia <3

  17. I find the questions about work difficult, particularly from family members as I actually care what they think! I just tell them I’m studying, but I know some of them don’t have a very high opinion of me for not being able to work.

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